Chasing the snowstorm: Snow and ice in Microsoft Flight Simulator

Last week’s big sim update for Microsoft Flight Simulator brought in some key changes. VR was the big headlining feature but for everyone else there were other things to look into including a big change to live weather – real world snow and ice modeling. I wanted to see for myself to see if this feature really works. The answer is… it’s complicated. Read on!

Three flights to see the feature in action

To check on this I decided to go chasing some snowstorms. First, forecasters have been tracking significant snow events through the Pacific Northwest over the last several days with the area near Seattle staying out of the snowfall so far but the mountains to the north east picking up significant snowfall totals and the same goes for areas in British Columbia.

See the below forecast map initiated on December 24th and going up to today to see what was forecasted in terms of snowfall total through the period (this map coming from TropicalTidbits.com).

So to check this out I decided to get in one of my new favourite aircraft – the Cessna Citation CJ4 and fly it on a route taking me from Tacoma Narrows airport south of Seattle, WA up to Kelowna Airport on the north side of Kelowna, BC.

Sure enough, once I got north and east of Seattle and into the mountains, the scenery changed from shades of green to white with the snow line appearing to transition along ridgelines and natural elevation changes. It looked very convincing to me and is probably as close to real world as I could have seen. I was immediately impressed. As the sun set and I came into Kelowna airport you can see that the lighting and ambient reflected light remains convincing even with snow on some of the tarmac. It’s unevenly applied and it looks extremely realistic here.

Just to underscore how good it looks in this area, I decided to take the Savage Cub up on some sightseeing around Kelowna. It was just a short flight but I was able to take in some of the details at lower altitudes. The only area where this kind of falls short when flying over town was with the roads which are not plowed in any way – unusual for a Canadian city which usually employs plenty of snow removal teams. It’s hardly a deal breaker but something noticeable from the air.

The overall aesthetic is also really good. The snow and lighting in Flight Simulator come together to create some impressive visuals and the snow covered hills look just like the real thing. I also love the street lights and airport lighting reflecting off the snow.

Just for fun, I also reached out to a friend who lives in Kelowna and was able to verify that the snow-cover on the ground looks just like this and the visuals are almost identical. The whole thing just looks superb!

Not quite perfect

Whatever algorithm that Asobo Studios uses with Flight Simulator to make this work seems to work most of the time but sometimes it doesn’t quite work out either. While my trip into Kelowna exceeded expectations, my third flight to check this system out was less impressive.

On Christmas eve, a storm came up the Ohio valley and dumped an impressive amount of snow on southern Ontario. Some areas received up to 30-40cm of snow while others got just 8-10cm. And travel far enough east and they had a green Christmas and saw only rain. So, to put it to the test I started at London (Ontario) Airport and flew all the way to Ottawa.

I once again turn to TropicalTidbits.com with the NAM3k run showing off the Christmas Eve snowstorm forecasted totals to good effect.

The ground around London airport did show some trace amounts of snow, but nowhere near what was actually deposited in the storm. As I flew closer to my own location in southern Ontario where I had 8cm of snow on the ground, there was still only trace amounts of snow on display. Flying over Toronto there was definitely snow showing but not significant amounts. There was very little after that and by the time we got to Ottawa there was no snow showing at all.

Good but not perfect

The overall visual effect of snow in the sim, not something that’s actually all that new (as it’s been there since launch), is fantastic! The visuals that it can pull off are realistic in appearance and really help to give that seasonal variation to the simulation world.

The location of where snow or larger amounts of snow appear to be also generally accurate and the transitions between where there is and isn’t snow is very natural in appearance. The natural transition between the two is unreal in just how natural it looks and that is, at least in part, a benefit from the data being fed into the system from MeteoBlue.

What didn’t quite work out is how the snow appears in different regions. In the Pacific North West it looks like the snow-cover is an accurate recreation while the appearance of the snow in southern Ontario seems to have the right shape of where the snow fell but not the right look. With just a dusting of snow appearing on the ground over London Ontario and with the city having picked up significant snow in the last storm, it seems that it’s not quite right yet. But Asobo Studios has shown themselves to be adaptable and I’m sure the system will improve over time.

Definitely a good first impression!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Firdimigdi says:

    Algorithms doing their dance with this one in some areas, I spotted snow in villages and the roads leading to them (only, the rest was normal) in west Tanzania.

    Liked by 1 person

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